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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

If there’s one word that could sum up road trips for the Lockport Express during the second half of the season, that word would be snow. For the road trip to Jersey Shore games Jan. 23-24, winter storm Iola wreaked havoc on the bus ride home. Again for the New Hampshire games, Feb. 6-8, which took place in Maine, the team’s ride home was once again affected by another winter storm. This time it was Marcus. This past weekend, I was lucky enough to be able to join the team as they went on a road trip to Syracuse. Par for the course, winter storm Neptune reared its ugly head.

Coach Frank Vecchio emailed me the evening before to notify me that, because of the impending storm, the bus would be leaving the rink earlier than normal. They were trying to beat the storm. Riding the bus would give me a chance to talk to the players in their element and see how they prepare for a game on the road. There is a bond that is formed between the players of the team when they compete. I was anxious to see this interaction. Unfortunately, the bus had different ideas.

The team bus was wary of driving in the cold weather and so, decided not to make the trip to Syracuse. After scrambling for alternate travel plans, we began a caravan to the hotel in Syracuse. I rode in the lead vehicle with coaches Vecchio and David Kasperek, along with Mrs. Vecchio and their son, Matthew. After a couple bungled starts because of the heavy snow, we made our way east down the Thruway. Neptune stuck with us until we cleared Rochester, after which we had clear sailing toward our destination.

After checking in at the hotel, we had about an hour or so to relax before heading to the rink. I sat down in the room to read while my roommate, Coach Kasperek, napped for awhile. In the meantime, Neptune caught up to us and snow was beginning to fall. Thankfully, the rink was only ten minutes from the hotel.

We in Lockport are definitely spoiled by the Cornerstone CFCU Ice Arena. We have in our city a brand-new state-of-the-art hockey arena. We have heated seats and a warming house. The Greater Baldwinsville Ice Arena (Lysander Ice Arena) is a very large complex with two rinks. And no heat. It was extraordinarily cold in the arena for the two games played this weekend. The fans who came out for the games this weekend are hearty souls.

A little aside for a moment, upon arrival at the arena, the wife of Stampede head coach, Michael Beavis, offered us homemade sugar cookies for Valentine’s Day. They were delicious. I would like to acknowledge the graciousness of Coach Beavis, his wife, and the staff. They were very welcoming on a cold, snowy weekend.

Saturday night’s game started a bit early, as I think everyone was ready to beat the heaviest of the snow coming in. I made my way into the wooden bleachers for the spectators. Mrs. Vecchio invited me to sit on her blanket so it wasn’t quite as cold. She is a hockey mom who is prepared for any eventuality with blankets, hats, earmuffs or whatever she may need while watching the boys compete.

The first period of the game stayed scoreless, although both teams each swapped a couple penalties. Between periods, I ran to the snack bar to get a refill for my hot cocoa. It was a quick trip, but the players were back on the ice by the time I got back. They were not fooling around about trying to get through the game.

The second period recorded seven goals and a long parade to the penalty box. The Express scored the first three goals of the period, including a pair of shorthanded goals. Anthony Merante opened the scoring 3:28 into the second. The Express went on the penalty kill after a Daniel Golba elbowing call. The Lockport players responded by scoring two shorthanded goals 18 seconds apart. The first, by Merante, fired up the contingent of Express fans who braved the elements to see the team. The second was buried by Justin Blake. And just like that, Lockport held a 3-0 lead over Syracuse.

However, the penalties continued to haunt the Lockport Express. At one point, there were five players in the box at one time. Lockport had three stacked in the sin bin, while Syracuse had two. By the end of the period, Lockport’s lead had been cut to 4-3. The end of the second also saw the last of goalie Tyler Shotwell. Ryan Kostelnik replaced him for the third.

The third was much more disciplined, with neither team taking any penalties. However, some sloppy play by Lockport resulted in the lone goal of the period being scored by Syracuse’s Joey Dupuis. With a tie game, we were headed for overtime. The Stampede’s power forward, Felix Landry, slammed home a power play goal three minutes into the extra frame.

After the game, we headed back to the hotel for the team meal. Considering the weather, it was fortuitous that the restaurant was right at the hotel. Snow was falling at a steady clip and the wind was picking up. The meal was delicious and the team was able to unwind after a disappointing loss. A couple of the guys seemed pretty hard on themselves but mealtime seemed to get them over the game and ready to focus on the next morning’s game.

The players had an early curfew with the game coming quickly at 11 a.m. the next morning. Shorty after dinner, they melted away from the dinner tables into their hotel rooms. This gave me the opportunity to speak with the coaching staff and understand better how they coach a winning team. It was an interesting time observing the camaraderie between the coaches. They are able to joke with each other about each others and, more importantly, about themselves.

I also learned that Coach Kasperek is the team’s mechanic. An issue with one of the player’s vehicles sent Dave into the snow and under the muffler with a wire coat hanger.  Simple tools and a mechanical mind saved the day and the muffler. Well, at least until we got back to Lockport where he could get a real repair for his vehicle.

Sunday morning was bitterly cold. It was below zero before the wind chill was calculated. The Syracuse skies were clear, blue and sunny, and thankfully snow-free. We made our way over to the rink for the early game.

For Sunday’s game, I was given the honor of standing behind the bench and going with the team into the locker room between periods as well as after the games. I was fully embedded. Let me tell you right here; there is nothing like standing on the bench during a game. It is intense. The action is right there in front of you without the safety of the glass to separate you from the play. You can hear the coaches yelling instructions to their players. You can hear the players talking to each other on the ice as they set up the plays for the next goal. You can also hear the players when they come back to the bench telling each other about the way certain opposing players are playing.

This biggest difference from standing on the bench, at least from my point of view, is with the players themselves. Normally, I see them before or after a game or on practice days. Those times are the times they are happy, goofing around and generally having a good time. On the bench it is all business. The normal smirks and sly grins are replaced with furrowed brows of grim determination. This is more than just a game. This is their life. And they all hate losing.

Sunday’s game seemed different that the previous evening’s right away. The Express were focused and they were not going to let another 3-0 lead slip away. Discipline was key for this. They had to stay out of the box. They couldn’t let the Stampede knock them off their game plan. They were successful.

Nick Siracuse opened the scoring barely a minute and a half into the game with assists from Chris Gasiewicz and Daniel Golba. Just over five minutes later, Gasiewicz ripped one home to make the score 2-0. Through the first period, the Express were playing an entirely different style of game than they had the previous evening, outshooting Syracuse 16-5.

Between the periods, Coach Vecchio reminded the team to stay disciplined. Sometimes that could be difficult considering these young men were in the heat of battle. A slash or cross check could get that blood boiling to the point where they would retaliate, especially when one of the Syracuse players seemed determined to knock the Express off their game by going out of his way to throw some stick work at the Lockport players.

The second period was played rather quietly for most of the first half. Lockport extended their lead 3-0 when Justin Blake scored at 14:30. Syracuse got on the board with their only goal at 16:26 by Braeden Pearl. Lockport closed out the scoring in the period with a shorthanded goal by Siracuse. Still on the game plan, the Express were limiting the Stampede’s chances as they outshot the home team 15-5 in that frame.

In the final period, Lockport’s domination continued to hold sway. The team was out-skating, outplaying and outscoring their opponents. Gasiewicz scored his second goal of the game. Jordan Pocobello closed out the scoring with three minutes left in the game. As an aside, Poco declared in the locker room during the second intermission that he was scoring a goal in the third.

After the game, I was able to grab an interview with Syracuse coach, Mike Beavis. As with everyone I’ve met from the league, from players, to coaches, owners and commissioner, Coach Beavis was a gracious host and was pleased to speak with me. Also, while standing on the ice, several of the Stampede players shook my hand and thanked me for coming. All these people are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met — when they’re not on the ice competing.

We packed up the gear, cleared the locker room and stuffed equipment back into various vehicles for the wagon train back to Lockport. Thankfully, Neptune cooperated and stayed out of the skies as we made our way west. It was the end of a great weekend of Junior A hockey.

I would like to thank Frank Vecchio, David Kasperek, Steve Bueme and the rest of the Lockport Express as they invited me into their world for a weekend series away from home. Being able to see the team from a whole new perspective gave me new insight on how the team operates. To a man, the coaching staff and players all love playing in Lockport in front of an arena full of fans. It is my sincere hope to see many more people occupying the stands at the Cornerstone CFCU Ice Arena as the Lockport Express finish off their inaugural season and prepare to host the home playoff series in March.

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